Bob Hawke was nonplussed. He’d just gotten off a typically eloquent speech in front of a claque of media, and no-one had a question for him.
Racegoers were left in awe when a metal miner from Broken Hill produced Rain Lover to win the 1968 Melbourne Cup, in what was to be believed to be Mick Robins’ third month as a licensed trainer.
Robins had taken out his Victorian trainer’s licence on August 1, 1968 and on the first Tuesday of that November he lifted the Melbourne Cup in an era dominated by household names of Cummings and Smith.
“When I came over to Melbourne for the spring, I had to get a Melbourne licence because you needed a permit license,” said Robins.
“So when I won, a lot of people were like, ‘How lucky he won – he’s only had a license since August!’
“I didn’t say it at the time but little did they know I had a license since 1950.”
It was the first time he had been to the Melbourne Cup and was shaking as he got off the float with Rain Lover. Although he had been to Flemington before, Robins was the new kid on the block, having spent much of his professional life in Adelaide.
With his father being a butcher, Robins followed his bloodline and commenced his butcher’s apprenticeship at the age of 15. But by the age of 18, he realised he was earning less than a third of what his friends were earning and tossed aside his apron to take up a job in the mines.
There he worked for the next ten years while training a handful of horses as a hobby. Following a decade in the mines to the ire of his father, Robins accepted a job in Adelaide to be the foreman for Graeme Heagney.
When Heagney moved to the United States to continue training Tobin Bronze for his new owner, Heagney’s stable was disbanded and Rain Lover was assigned to Robins, who had broken him in but had never expected him to become the horse he did.
Rain Lover had already put together an impressive resumé when entering Robins’ care, having won the 1968 Adelaide Cup as a three-year-old.
As an Adelaide Cup winner, Rain Lover was assigned 8 stone 2 pounds (51.7kg) for the 1968 Melbourne Cup, which Robins was delighted with. He would carry it to an eight-length win in record-breaking time.
After the race, jockey Jimmy Johnson declared to Robins that there was not a horse in the world that would have beaten Rain Lover that day.
While winning a Melbourne Cup in his first appearance was a remarkable story, the real legend of Rain Lover could not be appreciated until his second crack in 1969.
In between his two Melbourne Cups, Rain Lover had won the St George Stakes, Chipping Norton Stakes, Craiglee Stakes and Underwood Stakes – all at weight-for-age level. He even won a Fischer Plate and ran second in a Sydney Cup, both under handicap conditions.
Having won just about all before him, Rain Lover was allotted 9st 7lb (60.3kg) in his title defence, which surprised of Robins.
“I knew he would go up but I didn’t think he would go up that much.”
After being assigned the weight, Rain Lover’s preparation appeared in disarray, with a disappointing run in the Mackinnon Stakes.
“There were only five or six in the Mackinnon and he ran fourth at 2-1 on. Big Philou ran second for Bart Cummings and in my mind, Big Philou would win the Melbourne Cup on Tuesday.
“I said to Jimmy, I don’t like the idea of Tuesday now. He was at weight-for-age in the Mackinnon, he couldn’t run a place and he’s got to jump to 9 stone 7.
“Jimmy just threw the reins over and said it will be different on Tuesday over two miles.”
A doping controversy ensued over the coming days and Big Philou was scratched from the Cup just 39 minutes before the race.
“I knew he (Rain Lover) would run well but when they went past the trainers’ stand, which is about half a furlong from the post, I said to the strapper standing next to me, ‘Not bad to win one and run second’, because I thought he was beat.”
Carrying 2 stone (12.7kg) less, Alsop went head-to-head with Rain Lover for the final furlong and they hit the line locked. Robins had already given up, thinking there was no way Rain Lover could have won with 60.3kg and it wasn’t until Tommy Smith started jumping up and down while screaming “You won” at Robins that the reality hit.
Robins had become the first person in 107 years to train a horse to consecutive victories in the Melbourne Cup, courtesy of Rain Lover’s monumental weight-carrying effort.
Looking back at the 60.3kg Rain Lover carried in 1969, Robins is surprised by the amount of weight-related headlines for modern Cups. He believes the handicapper is now more lenient than ever, especially for “drawcard” horses.
“When you look at it now, Maykbe Diva carried less weight in her third cup (58kg) than what Rain Lover carried in his second (60.3kg).
“He earned that weight. Being a handicap, that’s the idea – to give others a chance.”
Asked if we’d ever see another back-to-back winner, the apprentice butcher-turned metal miner-turned trainer chuckled.
“I won’t, but you might.”